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Canes growing brand and awareness through Checkers partnership

The Hurricanes' preseason game in Charlotte against Winnipeg last September was a small sample of what has become a close and productive relationship between the Canes and Checkers.
The Hurricanes' preseason game in Charlotte against Winnipeg last September was a small sample of what has become a close and productive relationship between the Canes and Checkers.

Part 2 of a three-part series

As the crow flies, it's 130 miles from Raleigh to Charlotte. By car, depending on traffic, it can take around three hours to make the trip.

But when the Albany River Rats became the Charlotte Checkers in 2010 and began play as the Carolina Hurricanes' American Hockey League affiliate, the distance between the two cities, at least from a hockey perspective, became much shorter.

By having their minor league affiliate just down the road, the Hurricanes have been able to expand their reach from a largely Triangle-centric marketing strategy to one that encompasses the largest cities in North Carolina, and according to Hurricanes senior director of marketing Doug Warf, it's paid dividends many times over in the past two years.

The seeds for the Canes/Checkers partnership were planted early, Warf says. "We went to Charlotte and met with [Checkers COO] Tera [Black] and her staff to talk about ways we could work together. We had never done that with any of our AHL franchises."

It quickly became a partnership that went far beyond just selling tickets. The two organizations now work together in youth hockey development, community outreach, and much more. "We felt we could help each other grow our hockey base in North Carolina," says Warf.

The Hurricanes have spent most of their time since moving to the state in 1997 "taking care of home," as Warf puts it. But by adding another partner elsewhere in the state to spread the message, for the first time in many years the Hurricanes are advertising themselves in unmined territory. The Checkers' market reaches into South Carolina, an area the Hurricanes have not paid much attention to historically, but an area ripe for growth in the coming years.

Warf says that it's all part of a bigger plan. "Not that [marketing in central NC] will ever be 'done', but now that you've got the brand established here you can slowly start to creep out. We knew that [the partnership] would help grow both the game and the Hurricanes brand throughout the state."

Being in close proximity to each other has allowed both franchises to draw on the expertise of each other. No fewer than three former Hurricanes employees or interns have taken jobs with the Checkers, including Austin Caldwell, formerly an intern with Canes Youth & Amateur Hockey and now a ticket sales rep in Charlotte; Paul Branecky, who began as a Canes press-box intern in 2006 and is now the Checkers' director of digital media; and Eric Bridenstine, who worked with CanesVision before joining the Checkers two years ago as creative services director.

The talent pipeline between Raleigh and Charlotte is somewhat unique in pro sports, but Warf says it comes in handy on both ends. "When CanesVision wants to make a promo involving the Checkers, it's an easy call to make since you're dealing with a known quantity," he says. "When Tera has a position open, she'll reach out to us and see if someone is available. It helps create synergy between the two organizations."

For Warf, who has held positions in the Canes' front office dating back to the early 2000s, the frequency with which the two organizations communicate is a significant change that is owed directly to the shared vision of the franchises. "When our affiliates were in Lowell and Albany, I would have talked to my AHL counterpart once, maybe twice, a year. Now I feel like I talk to Tera as much as I talk to some of my own staff."

Both teams emphasize the importance of their season-ticket base, and by working together the Canes and Checkers have been able to add value to season tickets in both markets. The Canes offer their season-ticket holders vouchers to attend games in Charlotte, and when the Checkers want to push ticket sales, they can draw on the resources of the Canes' season ticket database to fill their own arena.

"That wasn't possible in Albany and Lowell, just because of proximity," says Warf. "Trying to add value to the partnership is a terrific thing. When you have someone on the other end as concerned as you are, it's a fun thing to try to reach out to."

In the future, the Canes plan to continue building up the relationship with the Checkers. A preseason game last September featuring the Canes and the Winnipeg Jets was a great success, and while the Democratic National Convention will preclude another Canes' preseason game from taking place in 2012, Warf is optimistic about the Canes holding more events in Charlotte down the road.

It helps that the Checkers' owner has bought into the vision, not only with his own team but with the minority stake he now owns in the Hurricanes.

"Michael Kahn is such a good guy, and truly cares about the game and growing it [in North Carolina]," says Warf. "If you have an owner that doesn't understand what it will take, a lot of these things don't happen."

After two years, "these things" have become a part of the hockey fabric of North Carolina thanks to some yeoman's efforts by the Canes and Checkers.

Coming tomorrow: Has the Canes/Checkers partnership led to more engagement and awareness among fans in both markets?